On any given night, more than 2,000 homeless youths make their beds in Chicago streets, because in Illinois youth shelters are scarce.
Austin, having the largest geographic area and population (2.715 million) of Chicago’s 77 defined communities, like its neighboring West Side communities, has a disproportionate number of homeless and transient youths vying for a place to call home, or at least a safe place to sleep.
These young people, some as young as 4 years old, are forced to sleep in alleys, parks, abandoned homes, buildings and cars. Homeless children are hard to identify because they don’t self-identity. They just hang around schools and friends until late evening, and then they make their way throughout the community until school starts again.
There are no youth shelters on Chicago’s West Side. Therefore, these young people, hiding in plain sight, sleep in parks or ride CTA trains all night, grabbing a wink of sleep between stops, hoping not to be noticed by the engineer. These children are often forced into prostitutions or sold in to sex trafficking.
Chicago has approximately 1,329 emergency shelter beds. These are mainly reserved for women with children. This leaves youths to frequent all-night Laundromats, coffee shops, and fast-food restaurants in search of shelter.
Butch (not his real name) has been homeless for more than 20 years. He often “squats” in Austin, “because I can usually make money delivering ad or newspapers and free magazines,” he said. “We sleep whenever and wherever we can, under the viaducts, behind buildings, even in the parks. Sometimes we get free movie passes and sleep through the movie then ride the trains all night.”
Butch and his wife raised their three children on the streets until Illinois Department of Children and Family Services took them about 12 years ago.
“I sold newspapers and did odd jobs,” he said, “but it was not enough to maintain housing. We had family, but we couldn’t stay with them because there was too many of us.”
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), which started in 1980 with a mission “to organize and advocate to prevent and end homelessness because we believe housing is a human right in a just society,” reports as of July 2013, there were 116,042 homeless Chicagoans. These statistics were derived through the Chicago Public School enrollment records.
During the 2012-13 school year, the Chicago Public Schools recorded 18,669 homeless students. This was an 8.2-percent increase over the prior school year. With the closing of more than 50 Chicago elementary schools, it is conceivable this number will rise next year.
CCH also reported that “more than 98 percent of these students are children of color, and 20 percent have been diagnosed with disabilities or developmental delays.”
As reported in the National Alliance to end Homelessness’ “State of Homelessness in America 2013” research report, more than 633,782 people are experiencing homelessness. The national homeless rate is 20 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population.
Included in the homeless youth count are youths referred to as “unaccompanied youths” or teens who are homeless and living without the supervision of a parent or guardian. The reasons for homelessness are many — foreclosures, eviction, child abuse, domestic violence, family problems, incest and more.
Last August, Illinois’ Governor Patrick Quinn signed the Illinois Homeless Bill of Rights, which creates a list of basic rights to protect the rights of homeless people from discrimination. Joining Rhode Island, Illinois is one of two states with such a law.